Winning Isn't Everything--Or Is It? A Thematic Poetry Unit

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In this unit, students will compare and contrast three poems: “Dear Basketball” by Kobe Bryant, “To An Athlete Dying Young” by AE. Housman and “Ex-basketball Player” by John Updike. They will learn how to analyze a poem closely. They will relate the poems to issues facing real world contemporary sports figures, and by extension, themselves.

Sports icons can’t remain at the top of their game forever. Their bodies just won’t let them. The defeat of Serena Williams on the verge of winning a Grand Slam at the U.S. Open in 2015 and Tiger Woods’ gradual decline from number 1 to number 104 by March 2016 show that injury and age sooner or later catch up to the best of athletes. When is it time to stop?

In November 2015, Kobe Bryant told the world he was quitting the NBA. He wrote and published a poem, “Dear Basketball,” to announce his retirement in 2016. I was immediately reminded of A. E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young” and John Updike’s “Ex-basketball Player.” Taken together, the three poems raise different questions about fame. To what extent are public figures in control of their lives and reputations? Is it better to quit, retire (or even die) at the peak of one’s performance, for the sake of one’s legacy? Is there anything tragic about the gradual loss of one’s physical abilities? Is choosing not to develop one’s potential just as tragic?

The unit is designed as a power point to be shown to students. Teachers should print copies of the three poems for students to annotate. Ideally, the poems will be studied together, but they may be studied individually, as desired. Suggested responses to all textual analysis questions about the poems are found at the end of the document.

Common Core Standards addressed are listed on the last slide.

Celebrate National Poetry Month!
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Winning Isn't Everything--Or Is It? A Thematic Poetry Unit
Winning Isn't Everything--Or Is It? A Thematic Poetry Unit
Winning Isn't Everything--Or Is It? A Thematic Poetry Unit
Winning Isn't Everything--Or Is It? A Thematic Poetry Unit